Relationship fundraising for Higher Education today

A relative latecomer to this industry staple, over the last couple of weeks I ‘took Ken Burnett to bed every night’ (as my partner teased) and read his oft-quoted book. Many of you will know it well – it’s called Relationship Fundraising: A donor-based approach to the business of raising money.

Given the sound advice contained within, the amount of time passed since this book was published (1992!) and its popularity in the industry, you might assume that we’re all ‘relationship fundraising’ by now. I’ve certainly heard many a quote from this book (or from the man himself) at team meetings, conferences and industry events.

Not so! Within the well-thumbed pages of my copy of Relationship Fundraising, Ken had described many of my 2017 frustrations and concerns so accurately, I can only imagine how bittersweet it must be for him that this book is finding a new audience 25 years later. The truth is (references to fax machines and ‘working women’ aside) Ken’s book is still as relevant and revolutionary as ever.

What is relationship fundraising?

In case you’re not familiar with the book and its subject, I’ll go straight to Ken for a definition:

“Relationship fundraising is an approach to the marketing of a cause which centres not around raising money but on developing to its full potential the unique and special relationship that exists between a charity and its supporter. Whatever strategies and techniques are employed to boost funds, the overriding consideration in relationship fundraising is to care for and develop that special bond and not to do anything that might damage or jeopardise it. In relationship fundraising every activity of the organisation is therefore geared towards making donors feel important, valued and considered. In this way relationship fundraising will ensure more funds per donor in the long term.”

This philosophy makes both ethical and commercial sense to me – keeping a donor committed and happy will always be more cost effective than acquiring a new donor, regardless of the level of their contribution.

Relationship fundraising also just feels like the right thing to do. Looking after donors is a huge responsibility and we’ve got to get it right.

To illustrate this point, here’s Ken’s description of donors (incidentally my favourite quote) which I feel conveys the gravity of our responsibility:

“In a remarkable demonstration of their belief, every [donor] has put their hands in their pockets and freely given of their own money to meet a need, help an ideal or achieve a dream. In doing so, each donor invests a part of himself or herself. His commitment has been demonstrated. It is a very tangible thing.”

Why read Relationship Fundraising?

If you haven’t read Ken’s book I’d strongly recommend that you do.

In a depressing way, Ken predicted a lot of the trouble the charity industry is facing now. The misuse of marketing, outsourcing to shady agencies and the lack of effective self-regulation have all played their part in leading us to the current situation with increased regulation and a poor public opinion of fundraising. It’s cautionary, describing the trajectory that allowed us to arrive in the summer of 2015 with a hard bump.

But it’s not all doom and gloom – in fact, very little of it is! The book is full of honest, common sense advice about how to look after your supporters well and achieve greater success. The book also echoed a lot of the reasons why I set up my business and have chosen to specialise in understanding alumni and supporters and communicating with them well.

I know many who’ve read this book would agree it should be compulsory reading for anyone working in the fundraising industry – why not buy a copy for the office to share? Or include a copy in your board’s induction pack?

Why read Relationship Fundraising again?

With the changes to information regulation there has been a lot of focus in Higher Education fundraising recently on what can still be done within the bounds of the law: TPS screening, privacy notices, opt-in consent and the list goes on. But how many of us are openly striving to achieve best practice with supporter communication? Who is changing their team culture, leadership decision-making processes and strategies to contribute to a more positive perception of the industry as a whole – and of course to enjoy more committed supporters?

We might be naturally predisposed to think ‘it’s not us they’re talking about’ when reading negative charity headlines – but as Ken asserts in his book, we all contribute to this negative perception through the proliferation of fundraising marketing material if nothing else – and we are all affected by it. Just because our audiences are mostly alumni, it doesn’t make it any less important for us to hold ourselves to the highest possible standards of care and respect for our supporters.

I’d like to think that development teams around the country are already striving for or achieving best practice with the supporter experience. Even so, it doesn’t hurt to pause and reflect every now and then to make sure this is still the case and that bad habits haven’t begun to creep in.

Reading Relationship Fundraising again might be a good way to create the time to consider your programmes and strategy and what values underpin them.

To help those short on time, I’ve also put together my own relationship fundraising checklist below, inspired by some of the ideas that stood out to me from Ken’s book. I hope you can answer ‘yes’ to all of these!

Are you part of the solution….

  1. Do you treat every supporter, no matter how big, small or regular their contribution is, as someone who will one day leave a legacy?
  2. Do you put equal emphasis on stewardship, engagement and solicitation programmes, i.e. give attention to the full donor journey or experience?
  3. Do you plan and budget for research on an annual basis i.e. do you have a culture of seeking your supporter’s opinions and taking them on board?
  4. Do you plan your appeals programme around when you’re likely to have something timely, relevant and important to say?
  5. Do you innovate based on what you know about your supporters?
  6. Do you have a reactivation programme for those donors who haven’t given a second gift or renewed their support in the last two years?

….or are you part of the problem?

Equally, warning bells should ring if:

  • All donors aren’t being acknowledged with a personal letter within 24-48 hours of making a gift
  • Your thank-you letter contains no request for communication preferences, no introduction to the key contact in the team and/or no text tailored to their specific gift
  • You don’t have a fresh and professional welcome ‘pack’ with an associated welcome journey. (Responders, i.e. first-time donors yet to make a second gift, are a high priority. Understanding them and delivering a quality experience from day one is what will inspire them to give again – potentially even without being asked!)
  • You’ve invested big in solicitation with little or no corresponding investment in engagement programmes and stewardship (If you think about it – isn’t it logical to follow a 5-star ask with a 5-star thank-you?)
  • You celebrate acquisition or income targets without celebrating (or considering) retention rates, supporter feedback or satisfaction measures – or you’ve noticed retention rates are falling
  • You’re happy to rest on the laurels of an excellent appeal without attempting to uncover why the majority of the recipients didn’t respond
  • Retention KPI accountability isn’t shared among all teams that contribute to the donor experience, just the team doing the asking or thanking.
  • You’re receiving complaints (solicited or unsolicited) from supporters along the lines of ‘I only hear from you when you want my money’
  • You see feedback surveys and focus groups as a ‘nice-to-have’ and not a ‘must-do’
  • You’ve commissioned research before that produced valuable insights but the report is collecting dust and you’ve not changed anything as a result
  • Your appeals calendar is based around what’s convenient for the team or ‘because autumn always works well’, not aligned to when you have something timely to share
  • You rely on tried and true ‘formulas’ (usually borrowed from someone else) until they stop working
  • You equate ‘tailoring to your audience’ with data and merge fields

Final words…

I hate to leave it on a negative note, so I will say this: If you’ve noticed a problem, that’s half of the hard work done already. Now go do something about it!

What I’d like to see in 2017 is lots of blogs and conference speakers talking about how they’re going above and beyond to create a truly wonderful supporter experience. If your team is already knocking it out of the park (or on their way) please comment below or drop me a line. I’d love to feature a few of those stories here.

What do you think of Relationship Fundraising? What other books would you recommend?

Next on my list: Roger M. Craver’s Retention Fundraising: The new art and science of keeping your donors for life.

5 thoughts on “Relationship fundraising for Higher Education today

  1. KenB says:

    Note to Holly

    You are so right Holly, bittersweet it is. Had people paid more than lip service to my book when it first came out maybe all the bad practice reports of recent months wouldn’t have needed comment. Of course I wouldn’t dream of saying, ‘told you so!’

    I love the pic of the title, above, with all its post-it notes. I’m intrigued as to why some are blue, some yellow? But mostly I wonder, as you’re new to the book, why it’s a 1992 edition you’re reading not the somewhat more recent and up-to-date 2002 edition?

    I suspect the curse of fundraising authors – you’ve borrowed it. I’ve long since given up on hoping that people will act on or even really read what I say, but I do hope they’ll buy their own copy…

    Ah well, maybe I’ll have more success with ‘Storytelling can change the world’. Even if fundraisers can’t see their way to changing bad practice, we all enjoy a good story, don’t we?

    Looking forward to your review of Roger Craver’s ‘Retention Fundraising’. I wrote the foreword – it’s worth getting, just for that. (Oh, OK, and for a few hundred other reasons).

    I loved your post, Holly. Thanks, and all power to your crusade,


    • hollypalmerconsulting says:

      Hi Ken,

      You got me – I borrowed it off my partner. I was curious about how much of the message from 1992 would still be applicable to the present day – and it turned out to be more prophetic than I thought!

      As for the post-it tabs, there are no fewer than 70, which is why I ran out of the original blue. I am often too tired to write notes when reading in the evening so I tag the page and come back to it. They all help me keep track of the quotes and ideas that I’d like to mull over.

      It sounds like ‘Storytelling can change the world’ might have even more relevance in the current international political environment. I heard a politician at a recent HE conference say ‘don’t give me facts, give me stories I can tell!’ – but I guess they need to be wielded with care.

      Many thanks for your kind words, Ken. I’ll be sure to let you know how I get on with the next one…


  2. Simon Buttenshaw says:

    Great blog thanks Holly

    Those clever people at Rogare have done some great work on relationship fundraising which complement’s Ken’s books –

    It made me realise that as fundraisers, if we always think of our donors like we would anyone in our own personal lives whose relationships we value, we won’t go far wrong.

    I find a good thing to have in the back of your mind is the notion of exceeding a donor’s expectations in every point of contact with them, as this will build their loyalty and commitment over time.

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